x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Mashed, baked, roast or fried... there's nothing like a potato

Fries or a side-salad? I go for the spud every time.

The question: "Do you want fries or a side salad with that?" may pose a challenge for some folks, but it's a no-brainer for me. I love my salad, but unless it's good, I prefer to go without. Conversely, mediocrity is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a French fry. A crueller fate is to be left uneaten.

The Atkins and Paleo diets, which promote a way of eating that best mimics the diets of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, are notoriously unforgiving toward carbs, and potatoes pick up a lot of flak where bread and pasta are not applicable. Potatoes, bread and pasta are also the three greatest emotional arguments in favour of carbs, as any well-rounded eater can attest.

Floury Idaho russets, dreamy, creamy Yukon golds and rosy, red bliss potatoes are the easiest to find year-round, although heirloom potatoes rule the roost when the season is right - and the season is nigh. These days, I troll the farmers' markets in search of saffron-fleshed fingerling potatoes and the deep purple Peruvian, a wildly gorgeous varietal from the Andes' highlands.

I remember being very young and reading somewhere about a village in Africa where the ground grows so hot during the summer that people can enjoy baked potatoes directly out of the ground.

This amazed my weird little brain enough to inspire an ambiguous phrase I abused for years: "[It's as hot] as an underground potato in Africa." Eventually, a caring elder pulled me aside to gently inform me that nobody had any idea what I was talking about. I later read that the African potato is not actually related to the common potato, but is a member of the mint family that includes other herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme and sage.

In those days, my favoured lunch to come home to after school was a casserole of roasted chicken and potatoes, heady with roasted garlic. Unless you're chucking your potatoes into a roasting dish (in which case, don't forget to add some carrots), where they can caramelise in the glory of a sizzling hen or a roast, it's crucial not to be neglectful with your preparation.

Every surface of a cut potato is a beauteous thing that must be addressed with salt, with heat, and with love.

Eating through a breakfast burrito can be pure drudgery or sheer bliss depending on how the cubes of potatoes have been treated: it's all about the ratio of potato skin to deep, dark crust, to satiny interior. The best roasted potatoes have crispy, craggy surfaces where seasonings can cling to them.

A similar logic applies to hash browns and home fries, the two most common variants of breakfast potatoes. The worst breakfast potatoes have smooth surfaces and are underseasoned and texturally homogenous. Just thinking about them makes my heart break a little. What did a defenceless little potato ever do to hurt anyone?

My friend Deena spent three years in a relationship with an egg-allergic potato fiend for whom she cooked a potato-centric breakfast every single morning, never repeating the same dish twice. She often incorporated leftovers from the previous night's dinner: steak, salmon, artichokes, asparagus, rösti, potato pancakes with applesauce, mashed potatoes mixed with vegetables, formed into patties, rolled in panko and pan-fried. I have joked that the demise of their relationship might was due to the limitations of a finite breakfast potato repertoire, but Deena assures me that there are infinite breakfast potato permutations. I guess I need to broaden my horizons.

Animal fat goes a long way with potatoes, as anyone who remembers McDonald's legendary fries of days gone by. For decades, McDonald's cooked its French fries in fat that amounted to 93 per cent beef tallow, while neglecting to communicate this clearly to consumers. They've since issued an apology and paid US$10 million (Dh36.73m) to vegetarian and religious groups. Many feel it was a small price to pay for the damages.

A baked potato was my mother's secret weapon against a nauseous kid. She'd pierce an Idaho russet with a fork, wrap it in foil, and throw it into the oven, then serve it the same way every time: mashed roughly with a fork, dotted with melting sweet butter, sprinkled with sea salt, and served with a dollop of sour cream. Something about this: the combination of fluffy steaming potato, the placid richness of the butter, the sour cream as cool and smooth as Vanilla Ice himself, that was totally restorative. I still go for a baked potato when I'm feeling blue, or worse for wear, or when I miss my mom.

While in college, I frequented an organic grocery store and café that sold food by the kilo. What I coveted most was the potato salad, luxurious with smoked whitefish, scallions, and plenty of black pepper. But because it had all the delicacy of cement, making it the heaviest food in the salad bar by weight, and because I was morally averse to squandering my dormitory housing funds on a scoop of potato salad, I went for salad greens, sprouts, and other lightweight options.

The best potato salad in the world, which I like to eat with a side of crab cakes or Dover sole, comes with a long shopping list, but it's worth the trouble, the chopping and the expense. New potatoes are sliced into rounds and dressed in a tangy, tarragon and chive flecked dressing, chunky with crunchy cornichons and minced red onion that cling to every piquant bite. It has the kind of acidity that makes mayonnaise bearable to haters.

Acidity is one of the things that make Belgian mayonnaise so compelling compared to American mayonnaise. The best frites I've ever had were in Amsterdam with the Dutch food blogger Klary Koopmans, who took me to a tiny stand, ordered for me, and then asked what kind of mayonnaise I wanted with them. It was the most sophisticated and civilised quandary I'd known.

One of the first things I do upon returning home to Abu Dhabi is hit the Belgian Café at the Intercontinental Hotel, where I jokingly hold "office hours". The frites are OK; the mayonnaise is manna.

The last time I came home, my mother had suggestively placed several jars of imported duck and goose fat on my bedside table. It was a less than subtle approach to getting me to make Nigella Lawson's roasted potatoes with semolina. If you haven't yet tried it, you're missing out.

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